An examination of the “new economics of college in America.”
In the mid-1960s, the federal government began investing huge sums of money in the educational system. As a result, more Americans from a greater variety of backgrounds had the opportunity to earn the degrees they believed would lead to middle-class prosperity. Goldrick-Rab’s (Higher Education Policy and Sociology/Temple Univ.; co-author: Reinventing Financial Aid, 2014, etc.) study, which uses current data gathered over six years and generated by 3,000 Wisconsin freshmen, reveals a disturbing national trend. Because the federal aid system has changed little in the last 50 years and because scholarship programs like the Pell Grant have not kept up with the skyrocketing costs of college, young people from low- and middle-income families are grappling with increasingly difficult financial choices. Many students, including six that the author followed very closely, must work part or full time at jobs made insecure by a volatile economy to pay for college. Additionally, they—and sometimes their families—are also forced to take out both student and bank loans. Moreover, just 48 percent of Pell recipients who start college full time “complete a degree or certificate of any kind within six years,” and Pell recipients who do earn a degree begin their working lives with an average debt of $30,000. Worse still, regarding the other 52 percent, “one in three leaves with…no credential and an average of $9,000 in student loan debt.” Despite the grim statistics, Goldrick-Rab believes that higher education can still be made more accessible by reforming the federal aid program, making true college costs clearer to incoming students, and creating a higher education system that offers the first degree for free. Bracing and well-argued, this study not only puts faces on the students who struggle to earn college degrees; it also serves as a warning that university study is rapidly becoming a privilege reserved for only the wealthy.
Necessary reading for anyone concerned about the fate of American higher education.